‘This is where we knelt on walnut leaves in the town of the word’, writes Carolyn Forché in On the Island of Theologos, the last of five extraordinary poems by Forché that you can read in this issue of Poetry London.
Elsewhere, C K Williams asks:
Deliverance? Carapace? Sun, can you hear my teeth grinding? Can you
hear my dried-out battered brain,
my already broken down thought-thing rattling like a bean in a gourd
down a hill in a hailstorm?
Williams too, of course, has ‘knelt… in the town of the word’, for one of the things ‘a bean in a gourd down a hill in a hailstorm’ does is to perform, and to require the reader to perform, an ecstatic event of language. Yet, all the poems in this issue – it seems to me – lie somewhere between those ‘walnut leaves’ and the sound of ‘teeth grinding’, or perhaps encompass both: they are, at their best, unified events of subjectivity and language.
In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes that ‘in “poetical” discourse, the communication of the existential possibilities of one’s disposition can become an aim in itself’. Of course, in many ways a statement like this risks becoming a rehash of Romanticism – Wordsworth on steroids – but the context in which Heidegger makes this claim for ‘“poetical” discourse’ is germane. For, many of the preceding sections of Being and Time deal with the concept of ‘pragmata’, that is the equipment, the external, innately other, implements by which we live, communicate and constitute ourselves. Heidegger recognizes the instrumental nature of language but offers up the possibility of a kind of ecstatic transcendence of language as simple implement, much as in his later essay The Origin of the Work of Art, he will see in Van Gogh’s ‘Een paar schoenen’ not simply the representation of a pair of shoes but the ‘thingness of the thing’ itself.
Philosophically, it seems to me that such claims for art are far from rigorous – indeed, in another context one might unpack how Heidegger’s ontology goes fairly awry when it comes up against his love of Hölderlin or Van Gogh: a detour that would lead us, perhaps, to Jacques Lacan and the innate alienation of language as an external implement by which we must constitute our very interiors, making each of us ‘un mensonge incarné’.
Yet, here on the other side of Postmodernism – that phenomenon that Lyotard defines as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and which Jameson sees characterized by a ‘waning of affect’ – it seems to me that the logical adherence to an often beautiful, but rather sandal-and-sock, paisley philosophising is as boring as what a poet I admire describes as the poetry of minor epiphany, the finding of pat-profundity in every nook of the personal and everyday.
If there is one thing I believe I can say about the poems in this issue of Poetry London, it is that they are not boring. Whether it is C K Williams’s The Sun, The Saint, The Sot, Forché’s wonderful selection, Sean O’Brien’s translations of Corsino Fortes, Alan Gillis’s brilliant fusing of the formal and demotic, Catherine Wagner’s wonderfully brittle, exquisitely tough poems or Jon Stone’s Nightjar (the winner of this year’s Poetry London competition), they could all be said to embody another philosophical concept: to pseudos.
In his lectures on Parmenides, Heidegger, writes that ‘“the false”… is, for Greek thought, “dissembling”. Dissembling lets something it sets out and sets up appear differently than it is “in truth” [but…] also unveils and hence is a kind of disclosure.’ I would suggest that most of the poems in this issue, ‘knelt on walnut leaves in the town of the word’ and simultaneously singing with conviction what Amy Blakemore calls ‘the parts that killed and touched you most’, look beyond the unfortunate ‘truth’ of language as implement, whilst never uncritically accepting the poetic ‘capacity’ for transcendence. Rather, they seem to look back to the future, towards something like Baudelaire’s old adage, that of poetry as ‘a magic… containing both subject and object simultaneously’ – that is they perform the necessary, wonderful lie that is also the impossible, insistent and persistently problematic project of poetry itself.